Friday, December 23, 2011

Glory Glory Glory in Immanuel's Land -- that's what Christmas foreshadows

So again this year I've had to object to those who reduce Christmas to a pagan holiday with no value for Christians. Then a few posts down I found myself remembering my experience of hearing Christmas carols in a church for the first time after becoming a believer, carols I'd heard all my life but without really hearing them until that time. Now they emerged from the dimness of rote repetition into a clarity that dissolved me in tears.

The carols heard in all their truth lift the heart to realms of glory that otherwise have no excuse for existing at all in this benighted earth, and I've come to the conclusion that Christmas exists for that very purpose, to lift our thoughts to the heavenly realms in a more focused way than we usually have opportunity. No, it's not the true birthday of Christ, we don't know when that is but it's certainly not in December, and yes it has had both worthy defenders and worthy opponents down the centuries so you are free to take it or leave it as the Lord leads. But I've finally settled it for myself: it's a dedicated time to remind us of the glorious birth of Christ as scripture describes it, the angel announcing it to Mary, the angels heralding it to the shepherds, God Himself taking on human flesh for our sake. Immanuel or God With Us. There is no other specific opportunity for celebrating this on the calendar. I think God has given us Christmas for this purpose.

The glory is not exclusive to Christmas of course, it's the core of the Christian expectation in a sense --Christ in you, the hope of glory, as the scripture says -- but we don't always have an awareness of it. That experience in church lifted me up to it, the Reality that I'd denied for most of my life until that point.

But I even think the ordinary "secular" Christmas contains the seeds of such a recognition. There is even a sort of common apprehension of Christmas as representing such a special time that we might say "it was like Christmas" to describe some extraordinarily happy or fulfilling experience. Even the poorest and most secular Christmas aims to dazzle and delight by the closest approach to something glorious that humanity can concoct with mere light bulbs and shiny things and wrapped presents and special treats.

For the most part it's not clear to those engaged in it exactly why it's being done at all, or it seems to be just something one does at a particular time of year, just because family does it, or "just because," or sometimes for the sheer pleasure of it in itself, that's how far it is from worship of God or gods. Certainly there can be an idolatry of the pleasure itself, or an idolatry of greed, all the usual idolatries of humanity, but while most may not celebrate the God of the Bible they are NOT celebrating some pagan god, no they are not. Even in the most "secular" of Christmas celebrations in what remains of "Christendom" there is still a tinge of recognition that "Jesus is the Reason for the Season."

Yes, I think Christmas is a yearly staging of something that can draw us to at least a vague sense of higher things, celestial things. All the paraphernalia we muster for its celebration seems to be trying to evoke something otherworldly, something heavenly, glorious, hopeful. Even the most ordinary tinsel-draped glittering Christmas tree glowing in a darkened room always suggested something heavenly to me long before I was a Christian, an otherworldly glory.

Oh but then when I became a believer the Real Glory that all the trappings of Christmas only dimly imitate became mine and that's what had me sobbing through my first church experience of the Christmas carols after becoming a believer.

Angels We Have Heard on High
Angels From the Realms of Glory
Oh Holy Night
Come All Ye Faithful
Joy to the World, the Lord is come, let Earth receive her King
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,
The First Noel
Silent Night
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the Newborn King
Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus

If the words of these songs are taken to heart in genuine faith, they can definitely take you to a glimmer of the glory in which the true God dwells.

God Himself stooped to become a man and dwelt among us, came to live the perfectly blameless life that none of us fallen creatures could live for ourselves, then to die in our place to save us from our just punishment. His coming was anticipated from all the way back in Eden. Angels heralded His birth, and angels were there at His death and resurrection and ascension. Angels from the realms of glory, God's servants who watch over us. Glorious beings from God's own glorious presence. Christmas recognizes them as no other event does.

While I was thinking about all this I kept remembering Blaise Pascal's "memorial," his description of an experience he had of the Reality of God that he described on a piece of paper and kept sewn inside his clothes until it was found at his death. It's one man's experience of the glory of God. It's about the glory though it's not about Christmas.

Dieu d'Abraham, Dieu d'Isaac, Dieu de Jacob,

non des philosophes et des savants.

Certitude. Certitude. Sentiment, Joie, Paix.

Dieu de J├ęsus-Christ ...
Blaise Pascal: This day of Grace (November 23, 1654) "Fire...Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy." This link includes a commentary by Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Pascal's meditation in which he says we all should have something of such an experience in our Christian lives. There are also links to Pascal's writings but I'm just going to copy out Pascal's "memorial" here:

This day of Grace 1654; From about half past ten at night, to about half after midnight, Fire.

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,

Not of the philosophers and the wise.

Security, security. Feeling, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ
Thy God shall be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of all save God.

He can be found only in the ways taught in the Gospel.

Greatness of the human soul.

O righteous Father the world hath not known Thee,but I have known Thee

Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

I have separated myself from Him.

My God, why hast Thou forsaken me? . . .That I be not separated from Thee eternally.

This is life eternal: That they might know Thee the only true God, and
Him whom Thou hast sent, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ.

I have separated myself from Him; I have fled, renounced, crucified Him.

May I never be separated from Him.

He maintains Himself in me only in the way taught in the Gospel.

Renunciation total and sweet.

I go from this meditation on the glory of God and our life in God to a sad recognition of what the unbelieving world makes of glory. Nothing much. They try to make it fit their paltry earth-bound sense of things. It IS the tinsel on the tree, with no more reality than that. They try to exalt mere worldly aspirations or ideals or good deeds but they always fall flat as far as glory goes. What the false religions and the occult do with glory is imitate Christianity, but they usually come up with something cold and spooky.

On a couple of occasions before I was a believer, just listening to a Mozart symphony made me sad because there is nothing in this world that deserves that exalted feeling. The same thing happened even more so when I listened to Handel's Messiah. It should make you aware that there IS a reality to which such music corresponds, but if you've bought the lie that this is all there is then such exalted expressions are just a cheat.

I think of Darwin's famous line about how there is "grandeur" in the evolutionistic view of things. A cheat, a cheat. Bloody death-dealing nature as conceived by evolution? A cheat, the biggest of cheats. Oh what REAL grandeur Darwin missed out on, and the aggressive atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I think of Peter Hitchens' description of embracing the marriage ceremony of the Anglican church as a coming into his inheritance as a Christian Englishman, and think how Darwin, Dawkins, and Peter's brother Christopher all chose to repudiate that heritage and will never know its glory.

So all this is my Christmas meditation this year. God might have allowed me an exalted experience such as I had with the Christmas carols without the holiday of Christmas, and He has allowed me others, but I have to think that such a concentration of expressions of Glory to God in the Highest that Christmas brings us was intended by Him, and I refuse to accept the debunkery of those who put it all down to a cheap Christianized version of paganism.

Let the heathen and the dedicated atheists and the Bible-denying "Christians" scoff at angels and the virgin birth of God Himself as a man, reduce it to a fiction and so destroy their own opportunity to touch celestial realms. They've been invited to join us innumerable times but sometimes we believers just have to leave them behind in their own chosen fate.